Can AAP Go National in 2014?

More than serious and long-term contenders, they appear to represent the muckraker tradition that so energised American politics in the early 20th century

Published: Dec 30, 2013
Can AAP Go National in 2014?
Image: Getty Images
Arvind Kejriwal with party leaders during Aam Aadmi Party's victory rally after the party's good show in Delhi Assembly polls

Is the extraordinary debut of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi assembly election a revolt, a revolution or a flash in the pan? Can it be expanded to new geographies and states? Can it be scaled up to leave its impact on the 2014 Lok Sabha election? Is AAP’s success a function of the small constituencies and unique socio-economic conditions of Delhi—or is it a larger political phenomenon?

If AAP had won say six or even 10 seats in the Delhi election, the answers and conclusions would have been fairly easy. The diffidence in making predictions has occurred because AAP did much better than anybody expected—whether critics or adherents—and took home 40 percent of the assembly’s seats.

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To try and guess where Kejriwal and the AAP movement will go, it would be helpful to analyse why they won 28 seats in Delhi and the motivations of those who voted for them. The vote for AAP was not a vote for local candidates or grassroots stalwarts. It was a vote for Kejriwal. Quite simply, he emerged as the personality of the Delhi election. In turn, the vote for Kejriwal was not a vote for hope or a bet on a vision of a golden future—it was a gigantic and devastating protest vote.

In the days before polling, the most common explanation of people who said they would vote for Kejriwal was: “At least he says things that need to be said.” They were not concerned with his economic philosophy—many who backed him are still innocent of it—and did not instinctually believe the institution of the Lok Pal would finish corruption and eradicate the black market for gas cylinders. They just saw Kejriwal as a brave “person like us” who named names, spoke about cronyism in high places and attacked everybody and her son-in-law. Broadly, he sliced into the Congress vote, while the BJP vote remained roughly where it was.

Kejriwal’s appeal can work in Delhi and Gurgaon and perhaps parts of Mumbai. Maybe it can work in Bangalore as well, provided he can find the linguistic connect and local faces that can use a mix of populism, indignation and cynicism to forge an unlikely alliance between slums and gated neighbourhoods. Of course, local faces who speak the local language may not need the AAP label at all. Some of them may fancy they can project themselves in the immediate community while being autonomous of Kejriwal. In the process, they could further fragment the vote.

In a Chennai or a Kolkata, local politics is dominated by strong regional parties that are not affected by the current anti-Congress mood and are served by a tight network of party workers and transactional syndicates. Here Kejriwal will find it still harder to make inroads.

Three points flow from this. First, the smaller the constituency size, the greater will be the impact of AAP or an AAP-type electoral intervention. Few states in India have assembly constituencies and electorates as small as Delhi’s. In municipal elections in big urban centres, Kejriwal and those inspired by him could make a significant dent. As voting blocs get consolidated into larger parliamentary constituencies, this will become difficult. As such, the Lok Sabha election of 2014 may be far tougher for Kejriwal not just across urban India but even in Delhi itself.

Second, does Kejriwal threaten Narendra Modi or does he represent a microcosm of the same appeal? Like Modi—but admittedly unlike the BJP as a political party—Kejriwal positions himself as the untainted outsider, the man from nowhere, the truth teller, the unabashed and unafraid angry Indian, without a well-chronicled family history, bashing away at a culture of privilege. The two men tap into exactly the same sentiment. This is a reality accepted by AAP functionaries. They admit many of those who voted for them in the Delhi assembly polls, particularly the young and the restless, indicated they would opt for Modi in six months.

Third, Kejriwal and AAP are confronted with competing choices: Focus energies on the (expected) second assembly election as well as Lok Sabha election in Delhi; or stretch resources thin and go in for a rapid expansion. Option two has the makings of a bubble that could burst very quickly. As for option one, yes, it could lead to a possible victory and government formation in Delhi, and yield a couple of Lok Sabha seats. Equally, if the BJP rectifies some of the mistakes it made in December 2013, it could leave AAP even further behind in a possible May 2014 Delhi state campaign that will have the additional advantage of piggybacking on Modi’s national campaign.

Ultimately, where does one place Kejriwal and AAP? More than serious and long-term contenders, they appear to represent the muckraker tradition that so energised American politics in the early 20th century. Activists, writers, woolly-headed but well-meaning socialists, utopians: The muckrakers were a reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age, a period of enormous economic growth as well as massive corruption in the United States.

Backed by a seething public as well as by sections of big business, which wanted greater transparency and reform, the muckrakers attacked the cosy arrangements of the establishment. They produced pamphlets and made a habit of political overstatement, attacking the rich and the famous, the great and the good, the high and the mighty. Political opponents accused them of hype and exaggeration.

With their crackpot policy agenda, muckraker candidates didn’t make it very far electorally. However, they did provide a check on the extremes of a completely unwholesome rendition of capitalism and of industrial democracy, and acted as catalysts in a cleansing of American public life. The muckrakers came to symbolise a cathartic moment that was greater than their individual electoral legacy. In six months to a year, will we be saying the same thing about Arvind Kejriwal?

Illustration: Sameer Pawar

(This story appears in the 10 January, 2014 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Vivek Goenka

    AAP should go for 2014. ye 2014 ka election hr party ko against Arvind Kejriwal ladna hoga...

    on Jan 9, 2014
  • Manu

    aap should do well in UP ...UP has worst leaders currently...COMPARED TO OTHER STATE..

    on Jan 6, 2014
  • Manoj

    i cannot predict any part coming with victory in 2014 in lok shabha election ...... but if aap do well in uttar pradesh..then there could chances of coming national party. because every one where up stand now , with largest lok shabha constituency....

    on Jan 6, 2014
  • Rajesh

    BJP supporters should welcome AAP fighting LS elections. In Delhi AAP got 30% vote of which 20% was from Congress, 8% from BSP

    on Jan 5, 2014
  • Shubhayan Roy Sanyal

    Industrial growth down,Employment rates down,National security threatened,Dollar price up, Inflation high, Service sector down, Agricultural growth down,100s of Bills pending. In this situation if AAP makes a dent to BJP's vote bank , it will only result in a 'Hung Parliament'. We all know that how much ever honest we become, there is no substitute to experience.

    on Jan 3, 2014
  • Aman Tyagi

    I like your point about AAP\'s competing choices- Focus on Delhi first and build an organization nationally slowly or go national now on the risk of not being able to capitalize in Delhi itself. I think AAP should have opted for the first choice. India need a political alternative like AAP to keep checks, but for that, it will have to mature through experience. But Indian media has sensationalized \"the AAP phenomenon\" since Delhi results (where AAP came second, no majority, no victory) so much that they have mistaken it for reality. Congress bosses must love this- Finally someone can keep Modi out of middle class leaving rooms.

    on Jan 3, 2014
  • Vasant

    AAP in Bangalore will be a non starter. They use Hindi Banners and have no local connect at all. There is not even a single known local face in AAP who can speak good Kannada and have good understanding of at least Bangalore, leave alone Karnataka. They also hesitate to take any stance on mainstream issues of Karnataka like Cauvery crisis or Belgaum border row and the likes. Local media was cold to them until Delhi results happened but even now, whatever little coverage local media gives to AAP is basically about Delhi and not to anything AAP doing in Bangalore. Unless AAP understands that Bangalore is not a hindi belt city and speaking Kannada is very much essential to stand any chance in the city, they will be an imaginary force in the city.

    on Jan 2, 2014
    • Vikas

      Agree with you. The folks who support Kejri support Modi too. T That\'s another challenge for AAP

      on Jan 2, 2014
  • Rammesh Kumar Mumukshu

    The observation is good but we have to wait and watch the AAP performance in Delhi. In my mind, they will start some new things that will put a deep impact on entire our political system.

    on Dec 31, 2013
  • Jitendradesai

    AAP is being backed by Congress to stop Modi.To that extent,AAP may be more relevant than those American muckrakers.Also the MSM appears to be readying for wall to wall coverage for AAP, thanks again to its dislike for Modi.But if Kejriwal trumpets himself too much through media, there could be further consolidation of votes for Modi.Also this time entire Parivaar is likely to be active for BJP.mobilisation will be similar to what we had seen during Ram Janmabhumi movement.

    on Dec 30, 2013
    • Bapty.s

      A country of Indias size. ,population, diff cultures, people, languages, are we all correct In digressing so much about TINY AAP, in tiny DELHI aap getting say 35 lacs votes ,BJP missing by a whisker, 3 to 4 seats.,and correctly not forming govt. Responsibility of BJPand MODIJI is mammoth India, let's understand, DELHI IS NOT INDIA. Bjp needs to oust corruption, scams, loot ,meaning thereby Congress and corrupt ALLIES. media may totally favour CONGRESS ,RAHUL, AAP ETC ETC, but notwithstanding all this MODIJI IS BY FAR. WAY AHEAD IN POPULARITY and to say crowds is not votes makes little sense. Bjp needs to be FOCUSSED booth by booth and must keep eyes and ears close to ground zero ,and the entire bjp team and all close proven allies must do the field work. MSM ,tv channels ,are not the BJPS eyes and ears, it's their booth level KARYAKARTAS I feel confident BJP will hit 300 plus with MODIJI and his work and the trust people have on him to be INDIAS P.M

      on Dec 31, 2013
  • Anil Kumar

    I completely agree with the author. It is mere a state phenomena as they don\'t have any ideology

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Shubhayan

    Employment rate down,Industrial growth down,Agricultural growth down,Dollar price up,Service Sector struggling, National security threatened,Inflation high,100s of bills

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Shubhayan

    Industrial growth down, employment rates down, national security threatened, dollar price up, inflation high, service sector down, agricultural growth down, 100s of bills pending. In this situation if AAP makes a dent to any of the political parties like Congress, BJP, etc...

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Knr

    Post facto analyses need not be taken very seriously. If this author had made this prediction before the election, it would have had more value. His is just one more theory to make light of AAP. Arvind kejriwal is a second \'M N Roy\' who is practical. He is team oriented and not self aggrandizing and does not want to hog publicity for himself like some other leaders. He is a \'gem of the purest ray serene\' and has able and equally genuine and clean team members like Prashant Bhushan and Kumar biswas and Manish Sisodia, to name a few. I dont accept the muslim vote angle mentioned by Jaysartn. I was in Delhi in 2011, when Anna fasted and saw the enthu and public awareness and participation it created. AK is a selfless worker - selfless not only regarding money but even fame. He is a sharing person. He is not developing a personality cult. Corruption not a main issue ? Funny to hear some one say that. Corruption, if tackled, will make all policy implementation fruitful and the fruits will reach the intended recipients. Mark my words, AAP is going to redfine the meaning of the word \'Politics\' in India.

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Srivats

    It is sad to see that AAP voters get carried away by gimmicks and populism. Governance is not just about doing away with Lal bathis, staying in a modest accommodation, and shunning security. Governance is about delivering promises and a vision for the country overall. There are serious national issues beyond corruption. Internal and external threats via naxals and Pakistan aided terrorism. Kashmir is an achilles heel. Even veteran leaders like Vajpayee struggled for a permanent solution for Kashmir. On the other side China is staring at us in the face. Unemployment is another big challenge the country is facing. The country is going thro\' numerous other issues. Lokpal is not a solution for every issue that we are facing. AAP says it will contest only 300 seats but doesn\'t want to ally with any other party bcoz they think they are the holiest of all. Fine! But do they think they will have 100% strike rate or close to that to form a govt on its own. Its highly impractical. Again it will be a situation like Delhi.... a hung parliament and Cong will come thro\' back door. Like to add that many many senior economists have warned that AAP with its socialist/populist policies will take this country\'s economy down the drain. Wish AAP voters rethink and cast their vote thoughtfully.

    on Dec 30, 2013
    • Rahul

      AAP is going to deliver just wait and watch. You have been watching Congress and BJP always failing to address people\'s issues and distribution companies which eat on farmers hard work. They have been in power for more than 60 years. It\'s not even 2 days and u talk about AAP like this. Let the tenure finish, Arvind Kejriwal is an educated man who also has the wisdom and vision of a developed country.

      on Dec 30, 2013
      • Srivats

        Really? And FYI BJP was not in power for 60 yrs. So don\'t make sweeping statements.

        on Dec 30, 2013
      • Reply2rahul

        Rahul dont u remember our current PM and FM are much better educated than AK. Do you still find a strong relationship between studies and integrity. Degrees may not bring wiseness but sometimes degrees may bring arrogance.

        on Dec 31, 2013
  • Umesh

    AAP is definitely a national phenomena. They have definitely raised the bar. People are fed up with conventional political systems that never delivered.

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Thirthappa

    The people of country now seriously looking for alternative which sans cast, creed and communalism so in the present context people like A.K and his company has bright furture.

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Niraj Ranjan Rout

    Sir, you still don\'t get it. You make some sweeping conclusions, like (1) the vote in Delhi was for Kejriwal, the individual, (2) it was a protest vote, (3) they have no economic agenda. And then, you extrapolate your flawed assumptions to conclude that its because of these reasons that they won\'t work at the national level. Sir, wait and watch.

    on Dec 30, 2013
    • Rahul

      Wait and watch, they will surprise you in a 5 years.

      on Dec 30, 2013
  • Satyendra Pandey

    The author makes an excellent points. The voters who voted for AAP will vote for Narendra Modi in General elections. Since he is capturing urban interest, I highly doubt the urban voters would like to see the a hung assembly like Delhi. Its very scary to imagine a third front - Arvind, Mamta, Jaya, Naveen P, Nitish, Mulayam

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Jayasartn

    It was not an aam admi vote that AAP got in Delhi. It was a communal vote, with Muslims voting en bloc for the AAP. It was openly declared by Muslim clerics in the last few days before the elections that Muslims must vote for AAP. Five out of eight Congress victories being Muslims show that it was a communal vote of Muslims preferring Muslims among Congress candidates and opting for AAP in other places. Is this a victory for aam admi? Why no writer is writing on this core issue? Moreover, out of 28 seats that AAP won, it won with less than 1000 vote margin in 4 seats and with a margin between 1000 to 2000 votes in 4 other seats. The margin is not high in many other constituencies. This inside story is not discussed by MSM, why? Had the Muslims not voted for AAP, even these 8 seats would have been lost. In the final analysis, the muckraker candidates would not lose out as a natural corollary, if the communal vote is going to persist.This is a real danger for Indian democracy.

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Suma

    The article analyzes AAP phenomenon from conventional angle. If you had asked the author of the article, if the AAP would have made an impact in Delhi election, he would have said it's not possible, analyzing AAP in the conventional way. AAP cannot be analyzed by conventional commentators, who are conservative in their outlook. AAP is about a revolution in the way democracy is perceived in India. It will grow and force conventional parties to make internal changes to respond to people and address issues in better way. Systems needs to be put in place to address citizen grievance and public servants will become citizen centric addressing their issues. Money needs to be allocated to right priority with the correct transparency on all matters relating to governance.

    on Dec 30, 2013
  • Samir Shrivastava

    Commentators like Ashok Malik still don\'t get it. The AAP phenomenon cannot be viewed through a normal prism. Its politics is here to stay. Just because a policy agenda cannot be easily slotted as either left or right of centre does not make it a crackpot agenda. History may well see the rise of AAP as a watershed moment -- a beginning of solution-centric politics in India that cuts across class- and caste-based divisions.

    on Dec 30, 2013
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